Steeped as we are in a culture of all-consuming capitalism, I think it’s challenging for Americans to fully get where French shock-till-you-drop playwright Jean Genet was coming from. The playwright got pretty wound up — to put it mildly — about the class struggle between the overlords of society and the peons who attend their every whim. In his 1947 play “The Maids,” Genet practically froths about the indignities of human power structures. To the playwright, who spent his early years as a vagabond and petty criminal, it doesn’t matter if the mistress of the house treats her hired help with a benign-fakey warmth instead of a whip to the back — at the end of the day, she retires in comfort to her flower-strewn bedroom with couture-filled closet, and they retreat to the plain attic servants’ quarters with rough pine dresser drawers. For Genet, it only makes sense for the maids to spend their free time fantasizing about plotting the gruesome death of their employer.
Considering that most of us work for someone else, I’d imagine that if Genet were around today, he’d envision an abundance of violent role playing going on behind closed American doors.
There’s a sass and a grace to the Fresno State production of “The Maids,” which certainly falls into the category of one of the weirdest recent shows at the university in a while. (And more power to the theater department for taking it on.) Director Ruth Griffin has said she wanted to stage the show as sort of a melodrama. That choice, paired with Griffin’s natural choreographic affinity for putting movement front and center in her shows, works well in this production — up till the final third of the show. As Genet’s play spins into a semi-absurdist whirl of anger and genuine suspense, however, Griffin’s stylized direction detracts from the bewildering climax instead of enhancing it.
In 1933 France, two maids who were sisters brutally murdered their employer and her daughter.
From that real-life event, Jean Genet in 1947 crafted his provocative play “The Maids,” a feisty and (at the time) scandalous show that emerged as a scathing comment on relations between the social classes. The maids regularly indulge in a ritualized game in which they act out a revenge fantasy involving the death of their mistress. Will this be the time they play the game to its conclusion?
Fresno State theater professor Ruth Griffin is directing the Genet classic. Known for her interest in physical and avant-garde theater, Griffin is describing her production, which opens Friday, Oct. 31, as a melodrama. We caught up with her via email to talk about the show. There’s an excerpt of the interview in Friday’s section; here’s the extended version.
Question: What is “The Maids” about?
Answer: “The Maids” constellates a situation between the haves and the have-nots, the entitled and the outcasts. They are a duality that exists together. Genet was inspired by a case in the news of 1933. The Papain sisters were maids who committed two brutal and ritualistic murders, slaying their mistress and her daughter. The French intellectuals of the time interpreted the murders as a compelling symbol of class relations.
There’s an intriguing underpinning to the new exhibition of works by famed Fresno watercolorist Rollin Pickford at Fresno State’s Madden Library. From my 7 cover story:
Collectors are an integral part of the artistic process. When they buy, the artist eats. Through the decades, the prolific Pickford always appreciated the people who supported him (and his family) by buying his art. The artist’s son Joel, who curated the show, tracked down 21 watercolors from 21 different collectors for the exhibition, held in the library’s Leon S. Peters Ellipse Gallery.
I’m making this my weekend pick, but there’s plenty of time to see the show: It runs through Jan. 16.
Above: one of my favorites from the show, a 1948 watercolor of the unfinished Friant-Kern Canal.
“Race” checks the platitudes and niceties at the door. Walk into the inner sanctum of the law firm depicted in David Mamet’s brusque and provocative drama, which continues through Saturday at Fresno State, and you’ll get the “fly on the wall” treatment – people speaking in brutally frank terms about what the play refers to as this nation’s most incendiary topic.
“I know there is nothing a white person can say to a black person about race which is not both incorrect and offensive,” the grizzled white attorney tells his young black associate. Within these walls, however, the politically correct rules of the game are suspended. Those things do get said. In very frank terms.
In several ways I like the Fresno State production of “Race” more than the actual play itself. Director Thomas-Whit Ellis has crafted a hard-hitting, thoughtfully staged outing that effectively captures what is at the essence of any Mamet play: a slugfest.
The Fresno City College and Fresno State theater seasons kick off tonight with two very different shows: the irreverent musical “Avenue Q” and the searing drama “Race.” You can’t dawdle when it comes to seeing either show, because both only run through Oct. 11.
I had a fun time conducting video “tell-all” interviews, above, with Kate and Rod, two of the puppet stars of “Avenue Q” at Fresno City College. It’s celebrity journalism at its finest. You can also read my 7 section interview with director Charles Erven.
And with David Mamet’s “Race,” pictured below, at Fresno State, we made the play the cover story in Friday’s 7 section. Director Thomas-Whit Ellis talks about his decision to stage this provocative play.
Pictured: Mitchell Lam Hau, Ryan Woods, Joel Young and Breayre Tender in “Race.”
If you’ve let the months go by and neglected to see “Turning Pages: Intersections of Books & Technology,” the clever and good-hearted exhibition at Fresno State’s Madden Library that will leave you optimistic about the future of books (in whatever form), you still have today. The closing reception from 3-5 p.m. will include refreshments and the announcement of book art and trivia contest winners.
The Fresno Bee will open its doors 5-8 p.m. tonight as a stop on the ArtHop circuit. On display will be “100 Strangers,” a photography exhibition featuring work by students in Fresno State’s mass communication and journalism department.
We’ll have food, drink, music and the chance to meet some of the artists. I plan to be there from 5-6 p.m., so drop by and say hi. The Bee is at 1626 E Street. We plan to host additional ArtHop shows on a periodic basis, so keep us in mind as a stop.
SPECTRUM ART GALLERY: Renowned Yosemite photographer Charles Cramer, whose work is included in the 2005 book “Landscape: The World’s Top Photographers,” is the annual guest artist at Spectrum Art Gallery and will offer an exhibition of his original photographs.
Cramer, recognized as a master printmaker in both darkroom-based dye transfer printing and now in digital processes, was selected in 1987 and 2009 to be artist-in-residence at Yosemite.
He will be honored at an artist’s reception 6-8 p.m. Saturday.
One of the delights of this clever and good-hearted exhibition, co-presented by the library’s Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children’s Literature and the Special Collections Research Center, and curated by Jennifer Crow and Tammy Lau, is the way it nudges the viewer toward a greater appreciation of the staying power of books, no matter the format or technology that made them possible.
Books come in many forms: printed, audio, pop-up versions, digital. You can trace their progression in “Turning Pages” — from the hieroglyphics on a facsimile of the Rosetta Stone to an iPad version of “Horrible Hauntings,” billed as an “augmented reality collection” in which readers are able to see and interact with 3-D ghosts.
I summarize my thoughts about the exhibition in the above video review version of my column.
Technologies new, old, and reinterpreted have altered the paradigm of the book since its inception. From creation and content to format itself, the collective notion of the book, a benign object, is continually changing … With examples from both special collections, as well as book art from five world-renowned artists, you are invited to explore the convergence of books and technology—from advances in printing to the digital arena to new and exciting forms of art.
Exhibition artists include Thomas Allen, Su Blackwell, Brian Dettmer, Pamela Paulsrud and Mike Stilkey. An opening reception will be held 6 p.m. Friday and transition into a 7 p.m. presentation by Stilkey, a Los Angeles-based book artist.
“Systematic Process: The Audition,” choreographed by Kenneth Balint, is one of the world-premiere pieces featured in “Syntheses,” a concert presented by Fresno State’s Contemporary Dance Ensemble. The concert presents six repertory dance works on tales of injustice, identity, personal relationships, absurdity, competition and beauty.
Other premieres are “Gezi” by guest choreographer Seda Arbay, “Blithely Stomping Through the Minefield of Contemporary Sensitivities” by Balint, “Intelligence is Just Another Name for Depression” by student choreographer Katherine Dorn and “Underneath the Surface” by guest choreographer and Fresno State Alumni Rogelio Lopez. Rounding out the program will be Balint’s contemporary duet “Friction Brings Fatigue,” which premiered at Fresno State in 2005.
Fresno State history professors Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle hit the op-ed big time Monday when their take on Fresno as the new Dust Bowl made the editorial pages of the New York Times. They ask: With an extended drought, how long will California’s Central Valley be able to grow a third of the nation’s fruit and vegetables? They point out Fresno doesn’t have a sterling record in terms of water conservation but suggest there’s a larger issue:
Fresnans have long resisted water-saving measures, clinging tenaciously to a flat rate, all-you-can-use system. Nudged by state and federal officials, Fresno began outfitting new homes with water meters in the early 1990s, but voters passed a ballot initiative prohibiting the city from actually reading them. It took two decades for all area homes to acquire meters and for the city to start monitoring the units. To its credit, Fresno has a watering schedule, limiting when residents can water their lawns. But enforcement, to put it charitably, is lax.
Our behavior here in the valley feels untenable and self-destructive, and for much of it we are to blame. But we also find support among an enthusiastic group of enablers: tens of millions of American shoppers who devour the lettuce and raisins, carrots and tomatoes, almonds and pistachios grown in our fields.
It’s an interesting, timely read.
One more thing: It’s refreshing to read something about Fresno in the New York Times written by someone who lives here and understands the city, rather than the “foreign correspondent” approach in which a Times staffer helicopters in for a few days and crams as many cliches as possible into a story.
Illustration: Mark Todd / The New York Times
When the great English composer Benjamin Britten wrote his short opera “Noye’s Fludde,” telling the Biblical story of Noah using the text of a Medieval play, he wanted it to be more like a pageant than a formal performance. Anna Hamre of the Fresno Community Chorus is taking that stipulation to heart. I write about this weekend’s performances (2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday) in the cover story of Friday’s 7 section:
The ideal cast, Britten felt, is a mix of professionals and amateurs. He wanted adults singing the leading roles and children as supporting characters, including middle-school-aged children playing Noah’s sons and their wives, along with younger children portraying the animals that board the ark two by two.
The performance is a joint effort: It stars local singers Terry Lewis, Kathy Blumer and Anthony Radford along with members of the Fresno Community Chorus. Children from the Bach Children’s Choir play the animals on the ark. And the puppets they used were made by Fresno State professor Kim Morin’s puppetry class.
If you’re looking for kid-friendly option this weekend, consider exposing them to opera. There’s face-painting and puppetry making after each one-hour show. Tickets are just $5.
Fresno State’s 2014 Artists Invitational exhibition opens today in the Phebe Conley Gallery, and it’s an intriguing sounding exhibition. Four internationally exhibited artists — Joelle Dietrick and Owen Mundy, Scott Groeniger, and Jason Salavon — offer works that address the themes of data and technology.
The exhibition runs today through Feb. 14. Opening festivities are Thursday, when artists will lecture from 3-5 p.m., followed by a reception 5-8 p.m.
The exhibition is sponsored by Fresno State’s art and design department in conjunction with the university’s Center for Creativity and the Arts.
Lindsey, who wants to build a big new house in an old neighborhood, is meeting with some concerned future neighbors. She’s pregnant, worked up, adamant. The minefield-riddled battlefield onto which she has stumbled is not a place she wants, or is prepared, to be.
Then again, how many among us, beyond professional political pundits or shock jocks, really want to get into honest discussions about race?
But here Lindsey is — an assertive and upscale white woman trying to weigh in on the issue without triggering any explosions — in the wonderfully compelling Fresno State production of the barbed and funny play “Clybourne Park,” flailing away with the rest of the “combatants” as she discusses the gentrification of a certain Chicago neighborhood.
CLYBOURNE PARK: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for best play, this title almost seems like it comes to Fresno straight from Broadway. (I got to see it in New York in 2012, and Bruce Norris’ script is sensational.) The new Fresno State production, which opens tonight at the John Wright Theatre, is the cover story in today’s 7 section. Don’t miss Bee photographer John Walker’s photo gallery of the production.
Today is Giving Tuesday (or #givingtuesday, for the hashtag crowd). I could give you a long list of support-worthy causes. Instead, I will suggest The Normal School, the bi-annual literary magazine based out of Fresno State.
The magazine is the type of thing Fresno needs more of. It features nonfiction, fiction, poetry, criticism and journalism and is a great catalyst for local talent, especially given its emphasis on boundary-challenging and/or innovative content, form or focus.
To get a feel for what the magazine is about, show up 7 p.m. tonight at Peeve’s Public House on the Fulton Mall to celebrate The Normal School’s 11th issue. It will be literary — with readings from Corrinne Hales, Randa Jarrar, Steven Church and Fresno State MFA students. There will also be music from Lance Canales and the Flood. The event is free and open to the public, but you can subscribe or donate to the magazine, which goes a long way toward printing issue No. 12.
Before the party, Canales will be at Fresno State to discuss songwriting, music making and the like. The discussion starts at 3 p.m. in the Peter’s Business Building, room 194. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve a spot and a parking pass.
Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” always moves me. An example: I’m tugged by melancholy early in the first act when the Stage Manager — the semi-omnipotent narrator who in a very non-ordinary way guides the audience through the machinations of a very ordinary town –casually mentions that Doc Gibbs will die in 1930. The hospital will be named for him.
That’s years in the future, at least the future according to 1901, the year in which the first act is set, and it has nothing to do with the story at hand, or even the story to come, really. (Doc Gibbs actually lives a lot longer than many of the other characters in the play.) But the mention of the doctor’s impending death, a tossed-off line related so dispassionately, speaks to how the playwright makes “Our Town” into a rumination on time — and how little of it humans really have. Doc Gibbs was there. Now he isn’t.
In Fresno State’s handsome, vibrant production of the classic play, we get thoroughly wrapped up in this timeless exploration of time, if you will. Director J. Daniel Herring’s well-crafted staging has a burnished, heartfelt feel that never tries to hide the show’s historic underpinnings. (This is “Our Town’s” 75th anniversary.) But it does it in a way that feels fresh, almost modern. If this production were a furniture store, it’d be a Room and Board, not a Thomasville.
Scrooge in November? You bet. The new Good Company Players production of “A Christmas Carol” opens tonight at the 2nd Space Theatre. It has some great casting, including Mark Norwood — a GCP alum and artistic director of Reedley’s River City Theatre Company — in the plum role of Ebenezer Scrooge. (Something tells me this’ll be a Scrooge I won’t soon forget.) The show continues through Dec. 22. If you see it early in the run, just look at it this way: It’ll give you that much more time for Christmas shopping.
Also opening tonight: the new Fresno State production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” celebrating the play’s 75th anniversary. You can read my story on the show in Friday’s 7 section.
Pictured: Norwood, left, and Brian Freet as Jacob Marley in “A Christmas Carol.”
October is full of things to do, including these 7 picks for Oct. 17-23. From a silent film at the historic downtown Warnors Theatre to Fresno State Football, a beer festival and a big-time rock concert, these are some of the best bets for your entertainment.
For a couple of weeks last spring, it seemed like you couldn’t go more than a day without reading on the Beehive about Ryan Woods. The Fresno State theater major was one of two students from the university to go all the way to the acting finals at the American College Theatre Festival in Washington, D.C., an event I was lucky enough to be able to cover. As two of the nation’s 16 finalists, Woods and fellow Fresno State student Myles Bullock spent almost a week at the Kennedy Center as part of the festival.
Woods and Bullock didn’t win the top prizes. But Woods did walk away with two plum honors: the National Partners of the American Theatre Classical Acting Award, which got him a three-week stint at the renowned Shaw Festival in Niagra-on-the-Lake, Ontario; and the Williamstown Theatre Festival Apprenticeship, an eight-week program in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts.
Both Woods and Bullock, coincidentally, are standouts in Fresno State’s production of “The First Breeze of Summer,” which is in its final weekend. I connected with Woods several weeks ago to ask how his summer internships went.
Question: What was it like to come back to campus after doing so well in D.C.? Did you get your 15 minutes of Fresno State fame?
Answer: Haha, everyone was very supportive and congratulatory. The professors were extremely proud, and thanks to your amazing coverage of the competition, I had people calling me and facebook messaging me congratulating me on my success who weren’t even aware that I was competing. It was a very cool experience.
She still is, actually, as an elderly grandmother in Leslie Lee’s “The First Breeze of Summer.” As the matriarch of an extended family and a pillar in her church, she exudes a sense of stability and morality, particularly to her grandsons.
But grandmothers were young once. One of the intriguing aspects of this play, which continues through Saturday at Fresno State’s Woods Theatre, is that the past and present march next to each other, giving us a view of Lucretia that acknowledges her resolve, independence and sexuality. As the complex narrative dips into the lives of her family — all taking place within a few days of her birthday — we get specific views of the African-American experience from economic, religious and sociological standpoints.
This production, directed by Thomas-Whit Ellis, is a hybrid of sorts. It’s part staged reading, with actors sitting in chairs with scripts in front of them. It’s also partly staged, with various scenes performed by off-script actors in fully blocked, or acted out, moments. There are no sets. Costumes are minimal, with actors wearing variations of contemporary basic black.
The result is awkward — and somewhat disappointing.
In Friday’s 7 section, I talk with Thomas-Whit Ellis, director of the new Fresno State production of “The First Breeze of Summer.” Here’s the extended version of that interview.
What is the play about?
The play focuses on two stories. Story A takes place in the early 20′s and deals with the life of Lucretia, a young, attractive, black domestic struggling to find her place in the world and a fitful love life. She falls in love with and trusts 3 different guys who clearly take advantage of her, each leaving her with a child. One of which, a rich, white guy who presents the kind of schizophrenic, love/hate view of blacks as the late Strom Thurmond, who fought against civil rights but fathered a child with a black mistress. Ironically, her young life takes place in the same region as Thurmond’s constituency.
Story B takes place some decades later where we see a senior Lucretia (Gremmar) living with one of her grown children, and forming a strong bond with her grandson, a sensitive and frustrated adolescent who thinks the world of her and her commitment to her faith. Things go awry when he stumbles upon her past, these lovers and what he views as sordid, sinful liaisons.